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A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. By Paul Johnson . HarperCollins: 924 pp., $35

March 08, 1998|ESMOND WRIGHT | Esmond Wright is emeritus professor of U.S. history at the University of London. He received his degree at the University of Virginia in 1940. He recently completed a three-volume history of the U.S., and has edited "The Sayings of Benjamin Franklin."

Paul Johnson is brave and bold, comprehensive and versatile: brave and bold, in that he writes a 900-page single-volume history of the United States without having studied its history at school (Stonyhurst) or university (Oxford) where, in any case, in his day no American history was taught. The book is comprehensive in that its history is a reinterpretation of the American story from the first settlements to the Clinton administration, covering politics, business and economics, immigration, the commercial aspects of slavery, the growth of cities, art, literature, science, religious beliefs, the problems of alcoholism from the frontier to Prohibition and beyond, the recurrence of public hysteria (from colonial witch hunts to red scares to McCarthyism) and Vietnam.

For all of it, Johnson draws on records, diaries and letters, and yet he writes in a style that is smooth yet trenchant and is supported by what must be a gazillion words of notes about his source material that in themselves require 90 pages of text. And he is versatile in that he is the author of many quite unrelated books ("Modern Times," "Intellectuals," "A History of the Jews" and "The Quest for God"). Moreover, he sees Americans as a problem-solving people, bothered in recent years by issues like racism, Vietnam, political correctness, the growth of litigation and the rise of women but overcoming difficulties by intelligence and skill, by persistence and by courage.

Johnson handles and uses statistics well and "translates" them vividly into human terms. "A History of the American People" is a fresh, readable and provocative survey. He is full of opinions, for which he offers quite unnecessary apologies (for his views are usually well justified). But he is wise to quote Shakespeare: "Be not afraid of greatness."

Is this book then a work of distinction? Well, only just. He writes well and to the point. Consider the origins of the North and the South. "With remarkable speed, in the first few decades, the fundamental dichotomy of America began to take shape, epitomized in these two key colonies--Massachusetts and Carolina. Here already is the North-South divide. The New England North has an all-class, mobile and fluctuating society, with an irresistible upward movement pushed by an ethic of hard work. It is religious, idealistic and frugal to the core. In the South there is by contrast a gentry-leisure class, with hereditary longings, sitting on the backs of indentured white laborers and a multitude of black slaves, with religion as a function of gentility and class, rather than an overpowering inward compulsion to live the godly life."

And Johnson can be very wise. When summing up the story of the Great Awakening, on which he writes well, he concludes: "The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background. The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event. That fact was to shape the American Revolutionfrom start to finish and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being."

And he adds later when writing about the Civil War: "The Second Awakening, with its huge intensification of religious passion, sounded the death-knell of American slavery just as the First Awakening had sounded the death-knell of British colonialism."

Johnson's strength, which is also his weakness, is in his sketches of people; he treats them in quixotic fashion. To some, he is kind; to others, he is cynical, prejudiced, even savage, as he is in his treatment of JFK and LBJ (one finds his assessments of these men unduly savage because Kennedy, one must remember, held office for only a short time, and Johnson's presidency was filled with great social change and promise, though everything was eclipsed by the shadow of the Vietnam War.) He is always diligent and can be informative. The book is certainly an engaging series of pen portraits: Sir Walter Raleigh, the first great man in the story to come into close focus from the documents, is described: "Raleigh was, in a sense, a proto-American. He had certain strongly marked characteristics which were to be associated with the American archetype. He was energetic, brash, hugely ambitious, money-conscious, none too scrupulous, far-sighted and ahead of his time, with a passion for the new, and not least a streak of idealism which clashed violently with his overweening desire to get on and make a fortune."

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